The Holocaust: denial and memory

Published: 1997-01-05

They caught Eichmann."

My mother flew into the kitchen, hissing an epithet through tight lips—a mixed curse and hosanna that reverberated against the knotty Dine walls. I was sitting at the kitchen table with our neighbor and my mother's best friend Audrey, who gasped in response. The Israeli government had just announced that twelve days earlier it had captured Adolf Eichmann, overseer of the Final Solution, who had been hiding in Argentina since the end of World War II. It was May 23, 1960. I was seven years old.

These three words were my introduction to the Holocaust, Adolf Hitler's almost successful plan to murder all the Jews in Europe. Although I did not understand them, their combined vitriol and triumph have seared my memory like a brand. My mother died in 1973, before the onslaught of Holocaust revisionism, which denies the existence of the death camps and attributes the memory of the Holocaust to yet another Jewish conspiracy. Although she never heard the revisionist claims, I do not have to wonder what her reaction would have been.

I don't remember our visits to the Katz's. My brother, three years older, told me about them many years later. I was five and six when we would drive from Long Island into Brooklyn and visit Stanley Katz's parents. As a teenager in Brooklyn, my mother had met Stanley, whom she wed in 1940 when she was twenty. In 1942, Stanley went to war. His platoon was captured by the Germans and held in a prisoner of war camp. After the war, most of the platoon returned to their families. But Stanley was given away, either by his name or by the H for Hebrew that the army stamped on the dog tags of Jews so that the appropriate chaplain would attend killed or wounded soldiers. Because Stanley was a Jew, the Nazis killed him, and my mother was a widow at twenty three. In 1947, she married my father, and I followed in 1953, given bloodstained life through another's death, born of atrocity, beneficiary of Nazi hatred.

My generation, born during the post war boom, did not greet the war's survivors nor mourn its victims; we did not recoil at the news of the camps nor rejoice in their liberation. To our parents' generation, the Holocaust was real and immediate: it was real to my mother, who lost her husband and it was real to Naum Wortman, father of my childhood friend Marcel and survivor of Auschwitz, whose right arm bears the camp's scarred reminder, the inmate number the Nazis burned into it as a rancher brands cattle. But generations pass and scars fade, and even truth has been known to become legend. In a 1993 Roper poll, one third of adults agreed it was possible that the Holocaust never happened. Twenty eight percent of adults and 39 percent of high school students didn't know what the term Holocaust referred to; 50 percent of high school students couldn't identify Auschwitz as a concentration camp.

Since that poll, knowledge about the Holocaust has advanced little, while, according to one revisionist, revisionism "is springing up all over" The innocuously and deceptively named Journal of Historical Review continues to publish, in its words, "historical material from the Second World War onward, with an emphasis on revisionist viewpoints, especially of the `Holocaust.'" The revisionists refuse to dignify even the very word; framed by quotation marks, it paints a fictional picture. A recent biography of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's chief propagandist, argues that the Holocaust, to the extent it occurred at all, cannot be traced to Hitler. No written command exists ordering the extermination of the Jews; hence, there were no Hitler inspired deaths.

But revisionism has found its most congenial home where all rhetoric flows free: the Internet. A furor has erupted recently over the Worldwide Web page of Arthur Butz, a Northwestern University engineering professor. He uses his home page—part of Northwestern's Internet site—to broadcast his view that, as his 1976 book proclaims, the Holocaust is the "hoax of the twentieth century." Northwestern allows all of its faculty to place their home pages on the university's web server and has refused pleas that it deny access to Butz. Yet Butz is simply the most notorious of Holocaust deniers who have appeared on the web; revisionist home pages puncture the network like so many interwoven strands of barbed wire. One click takes you to a justification of Germany's imprisonment of the Jews in concentration camps; another to an

exploration of the "myth" of the gas chambers; a third to an exposure of the "lie" that six million died. You can read biographies of leading Holocaust deniers, an attack on the Nuremberg trials as a miscarriage of justice, and a sympathetic review of a book suggesting that, with slight changes in strategy, Hitler could have won the war.

Related pages explore other aspects of what revisionists consider the Jewish menace: one click and you can read about Jewish terrorism in France or how the Jewish plan for world domination led to Jewish infiltration of the British royal family. No issue is unexplored; revisionist home pages, updated regularly, contain links to hundreds of articles, book reviews, and speeches. You can even scroll through a Holocaust calendar, chronicling significant dates when "proof" of revisionist history emerged.

To rebut the revisionists' claims, historians cite the testimony, physical evidence, and pictures documenting the Holocaust. And, indeed, the evidence is overwhelming. Yet the revisionists have answers—fantastical as they are—to all of it. Thus, charge begets response, and response begets rejoinder, until revisionist fantasies have entered the arena of historical debate. In the end, the revisionists are engaged on their own terms, as the questions for debate become not, "Was the Holocaust unique? What were the motivations of ordinary Germans?" but "Could the Allies really have constructed Auschwitz in three months after the war? Was the insecticide Zyklon B capable of killing human beings in gas chambers?"

No other historical event as recent and well documented—nor many far more distant and ethereal—is subject to a similar dispute. One might as well deny that World War II itself occurred or Vietnam or the last presidential election. The revisionists rejoice in rebuttal, for point and counterpoint is the way of historical argument. Yet this argument cannot be won. For if rationality could convince, convincing would be unnecessary and revisionism would not exist. Hatred and prejudice—the only basis for Holocaust denial—do not respond to reason. To engage in academic debate on the issue is to lend it a legitimacy it could never earn on its own.

Responses to revisionists reflect a natural desire to establish the truth of the Holocaust in the public arena. And perhaps the exposure of revisionist falsehoods is both necessary and inevitable. But even blinding exposure will open few eyes, for receptiveness to Holocaust denial does not stem from any nuances of the argument but from the fact that the argument is made. The Roper poll results reflect Americans' general ignorance of history and hence our receptiveness when a historical event about which most Americans know little is questioned. The poll did not reveal widespread doubt about the Holocaust; it revealed widespread susceptibility to suggestion. Polls routinely reveal that Americans know little about almost all major historical events and even have difficulty placing such events as the Civil War in the proper century. As a nation, we do not revere history; it does not surround us in every building and square as it does in Europe. By definition, it is old and therefore may be safely ignored.

Thus doubts about the Holocaust do not reflect considered opinion that the event may be mythical. Instead, just knowing—from the poll question, if from no other source—that the Holocaust is being questioned, many will respond that perhaps it didn't occur. If any other historical event were publicly and persistently questioned—and perhaps even if it were not—a comparable poll would yield similar results. Because we Americans are not grounded in the past, we are susceptible to sound-bite history; if it is suggested that an event did not occur, many are prepared to credit the suggestion. It is as if America has suffered a loss of collective memory. The Roper poll is a reflection of that loss. To paraphrase Dostoyevsky, if memory does not exist, all things are possible.

Nevertheless, that the poll did not gauge particularized doubts about Jewish history is hardly cause for complacency, for, unique among indisputable historical events, it is the Holocaust that has been questioned. Debating the revisionists won't negate their claim to the popular imagination. If, indeed, the poll reflects more ignorance than doubt, then the debate must take place elsewhere. Our audience is not the revisionists but our children; our tool is not argument but exposition; our arena is not the journals but the classroom and the home. We Americans may ignore history, but we cannot escape it. For the past—memory—is all we ultimately possess, all that cannot be dispossessed, all we take with us, and all we leave behind. So we must preserve and renew memory lest it recede along with the past itself.

In an ethics class I taught recently, I devoted a section to the Holocaust. As I began, one student said jokingly but with at least a touch of uncertainty, "Oh, that didn't happen" (And now a subject of humor, how deeply the lie has entered popular culture.) I did not argue the point. Instead, I decided to let history judge. After an extended discussion, I showed my class films of the camps—to the limits of the students' tolerance, if not a touch beyond—the sunken eyes, walking skeletons, emaciated bodies bulldozed into mass graves. Afterward, no one joked, nor did anyone doubt. Discomfort is often the price of knowledge, for, if the Holocaust did not happen, we need not ask, "Why?"

In the summer of 1971, after graduating from high school, Marcel and I backpacked through Europe. We made a pilgrimage to Dachau in southern Germany, a death camp that had housed some 200,000 inmates. In 1965, the camp had been reopened as a memorial site. Two of the wooden barracks had been reconstructed. The camp, surrounded by a concrete wall with its brooding watchtowers, also housed two red brick crematoriums, which only two decades before had spewed black smoke and the stink of burning flesh over the German countryside. The formerly barren barracks walls now bore pictures of Nazi doctors, scalpels aloft, cutting into Jewish brains in an elusive search for genetic deficiency—what was it, the Nazis wondered, that made the Jews inferior? We quietly toured the grounds and said little when we left, for the silent camp had told all.

In the fall of 1993, I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.: three floors of photographs, films, artifacts . . . and shoes—masses of shoes, piles of shoes like haystacks, shoes that once trod the dirt of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Sobibor, shoes that would not be worn in the ovens or the graves and so survived the war. On the ground floor, in the bulging book of Holocaust survivors, I found the name Naum Wortman: Auschwitz survivor, Polish doctor, American husband and father.

Visits to the Holocaust Museum so exceeded expectations that, after a year, it had to be closed for repairs, thus is memory preserved. As parents, teachers, and citizens we must ensure that, for each generation, memory is renewed. In an era of visual communication in which attention spans seem to shorten daily, changing Americans' attitudes toward their past will be no easy task. Yet the decline of the traditional text makes it even more urgent. Both Jewish and American history present majestic stories of triumph and survival: from the ashes of the Holocaust rose the phoenix of Israel. We must teach these stories in all their majesty and in all their sadness. If we pass on a reverence for the past, revisionism will die a silent death.

Sheldon Epstein, a part-time lecturer at Northwestern's engineering school, responded to Butz's web page by raising the issue in his engineering class. Outraged by Butz's views, Epstein acted when he discovered that his students knew little, if anything, about the Holocaust and assigned them a research project on it. He was later told by the university that his contract would not be renewed, in part because he had strayed from the course material. The Holocaust may not fit comfortably within an engineering curriculum, but it is relevant to much in the humanities and to much in our lives. We have many opportunities to pass on our stories.

My parents passed on their own histories. I do not recall when I discovered who Eichmann was or how I came to under stand my mother's fevered cry. But somewhere between the ages of seven and eighteen I learned of the Holocaust; memory was handed down like well worn clothes, a legacy embraced by each generation. My mother lived through the Holocaust and her husband was its victim. Soon the last survivors of that era will be gone. People perish, buildings fall, shoes tatter. But memory endures. So long as we preserve it, we too survive.

Barry Bennett is an attorney, a writer, and an adjunct instructor of ethics at City University in Vancouver, Washington.

© 1997 American Humanist Association

© 1997 Information Access Company

Title: The Holocaust: denial and memory.
Summary: Holocaust revisionism has become more common during the 1980s and 1990s.
Source: The Humanist
Date: May-June 1997
Regular Price: $1.00
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Document Size: Medium (3 to 7 pages)
Document ID: LW19971007120004734
Subject(s): Historical revisionism—Moral and ethical aspects
Citation Information: (v57 n3) Start Page: p6(3) ISSN: 0018-7399
Author(s): Bennett, Barry
Document Type: Article

Additional information about this document
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Author(s): Barry Bennett
Title: The Holocaust: denial and memory
Sources: The Humanist, May-June 1997, v. 57 n. 3, p. 6(3)
Published: 1997-01-05
First posted on CODOH: May 30, 1997, 7 p.m.
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